Grief was a prominent theme at the movies in 2016, but no movie has tackled that anger and helplessness quite like “A Monster Calls,” this year, or ever. Using magical realism in familiar but effective ways, “A Monster Calls” breaks down the pain and guilt of loss and suffering in a way that’s accessible for younger audiences yet authentic to adult experiences.
Adapted for the screen by Patrick Ness from his own novel and brought to life by J.A. Bayona (“The Impossible,” “The Orphanage”), “A Monster Calls” tells the story of a 12-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall), a daydreamer who loves to draw, is bullied at school and whose single mother (Felicity Jones) is extremely ill. Beaten down by life, Conor is paid a visit by a massive monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) that emerges from the nearby yew tree despite Conor’s pleas to be left alone. The monster tells Conor that he will visit him three times and tell him three stories, and the fourth time, Conor will tell him a story, a story that will reveal the truth, a truth of which he is very afraid.
The film bounces between real-life scenarios in which Conor must deal with his worsening mother, strict grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and even his estranged father (Toby Kebbell) visiting from America, with encounters from the monster after midnight each night at 12:07. As one would expect, these fantastical episodes reflect and inform Conor’s everyday drama and emotions.
“A Monster Calls” is at its most captivating in the imaginative sequences featuring the monster and his stories, especially toward the beginning before the real-world story picks up steam. These digital water color animated fairytales, especially their editing and visualization, provide a tremendous boost in energy that draws us further into the story as a whole despite the fact that they technically digress from the plot. They also provide young viewers with a familiar story structure to convey important morals and messages that pertain to Conor’s experiences, messages normally too complicated for fairytales.
Ness’ story (based on an idea by Siobhan Dowd) personifies emotions and inner struggle in a way not all that dissimilar from Pixar’s “Inside Out.” The monster guides Conor and teaches him lessons, but he is also a projection of Conor’s subconscious that embodies his feelings of rage and inner torment. Through the monster, Conor learns how to express himself during this tumultuous time. Thankfully, the adults on the receiving end of his real-world expressions respond in productive ways.
Conor’s mother, grandmother and father have flaws and challenges that affect Conor in different ways, but Ness makes sure they don’t provide even greater obstacles for him to overcome. It’s enough for a character to navigate the family dynamics at play when someone is dying; to throw in the complications of an adult who makes things worse might be more true to life, but would distract from the core messages the film is trying to transmit. Still, Jones, Weaver and Kebbell can show how their characters are struggling too and not simply be perfect rocks for Conor to lean on.
MacDougall also has a lot of promise as a young actor. This is a part that requires a lot of emotion and yet a lot of restraint. He must have enough imagination to add to the magical scenes and enough of a grip on reality too. Viewers of all ages must also be able to see part of themselves in Conor to empathize rather than just sympathize with him. MacDougall absolutely keeps us engaged emotionally as the film unfolds.
“A Monster Calls” is an emotional film punctuated with the spark of imagination, one that combines beauty and fantasy with tragedy in a way similar to Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth.” It’s not all that discrete in what it’s doing or how it operates, but the intent behind it and the truth about the world that it wants to address are too admirable and important to dismiss. More than anything else, if “A Monster Calls” helps just one parent and child talk about grief, loss, guilt or anger it will have justified its entire production. More people just need to see it, and it undoubtedly will.
A Monster Calls
Directed by J.A. Bayona
Written by Patrick Ness (screenplay, novel), Siobahn Dowd (idea)
Starring: Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Liam Neeson (voice), Toby Kebbell